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Guinn v. United States

Oklahoma's Grandfather Clause

When Oklahoma was admitted into the Union in 1908, there was no Grandfather clause in its constitution. Almost immediately, however, this Southern state amended its constitution to read in part

no person shall be registered . . . or allowed to vote, unless he be able to read and write any section of the [state] constitution . . . no person who was, on January 1, 1866, or at any time prior thereto, under any form of government, or who at that time resided in some foreign nation, and no lineal descendant of such person shall be denied the right to vote because of his inability to read and write sections [of the state constitution.]

In other words, someone who had only recently become a United States citizen, or someone whose grandfather had been voting in 1866, would be allowed to vote in Oklahoma. But someone who had not begun to vote until 1869--the year the Fifteenth Amendment was passed--would have to take a literacy test in order to cast a ballot.

The net effect of this provision was that voting in Oklahoma was a virtually all-white affair. This angered U.S. Attorney John Embry, who, along with fellow U.S. Attorney William R. Gregg wanted to bring Oklahoma elections officials up on criminal charges for the violent and discriminatory atmosphere of the 1910 elections. As J. A. Harris, Chair of the Oklahoma Republic Committee complained to the Attorney General, "Election inspectors had received orders to permit no man to vote who was colored, and the orders were carried out in practically all portions of the State." Black citizens of Oklahoma also complained to both President William H. Taft and the Justice Department, citing the enormous amount of racial violence, including at least one lynching, all of which served to discourage black voters.

President Taft was a Republican, which was still thought of as "Abraham Lincoln's party," as opposed to the Southern Democrats, who were considered anti-black. Yet Taft wanted to reach out to white Southern voters, and he was reluctant to tell his Justice Department to prosecute. Nevertheless, Embry went ahead, and two Oklahoma state elections officials, J. J. Beal and Frank Guinn, were indicted. The charges against them were from the Criminal Code, which in 1866 and 1870 had been amended to make it criminal to deprive someone of his or her rights under Constitution and federal law.

No one expected an Oklahoma jury to convict two state officials of civil rights violations, particularly when the officials had been enforcing an amendment to the Oklahoma state constitution. Yet on 29 September 1911, the two men were convicted in the District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma before Judge John H. Cotteral. The judge had told the jury that if the two men had simply made a mistake in how they enforced the law, then they had not committed a crime and should not be found guilty. The judge stated, on the other hand, that:

if they knew or believed those colored persons were entitled to vote and their purpose was to unfairly and fraudulently deny the right of suffrage to them . . . on account of their race and color, then their purpose was a corrupt one, and they cannot be shielded by their official positions.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Guinn v. United States - Significance, Oklahoma's Grandfather Clause, A Political Decision, The Supreme Court Decides, Civil Rights And Wrongs